Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt called Friday on the government to stop dithering on the hostage crisis and endorse a swap deal with ISIS and Nusra Front militants holding at least 21 Lebanese soldiers and policemen captive.
The call was made by Health Minister Wael Abu Faour after meeting with a delegation from the families of the captured soldiers in Rashaya at Jumblatt’s request.
“On behalf of MP Walid Jumblatt, we urge the government to make up its mind as a political authority and adopt the principle of a swap in order to protect civil peace and the lives of the [captured] soldiers,” Abu Faour, from Jumblatt’s bloc, told a news conference.
Jumblatt’s call came two days after Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk signaled that the government was not opposed to a prisoner exchange with ISIS and the Nusra Front in what appeared to be a departure from the government’s firm stance to reject any swap deal with the militants.
Noting that the government did not have a unified vision on the hostage crisis, Abu Faour said the PSP proposed a swap deal in order to avert the worst, in a clear reference to threats by ISIS and Nusra Front to kill more of their captives unless their demands were met.
“But certainly the government cannot negotiate under a knife’s edge,” he added.
ISIS and Nusra militants kidnapped dozens of servicemen during their brief takeover of the northeastern town of Arsal last month.
The captors, who have released seven hostages, are still holding at least 21 soldiers and policemen. To date, they have beheaded two soldiers and shot another dead. The militants have threatened to kill more soldiers if their demands, which reportedly include the release of Islamist inmates held in Roumieh Prison,were not met.
Abu Faour also urged the judiciary to speed up trials of Islamists held for alleged involvement in the 2007 battle between the Lebanese Army and Fatah al-Islam in the northern Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared.
The families of the hostages have stepped up their protests in the past few days, blocking the Dahr al-Baidar highway that links Beirut with the Bekaa Valley, the Zahle-Tarshish highway in east Lebanon and the Qalamoun road in the north with burning tires to press for government action to secure the release of their loved ones. The Dahr al-Baidar road remained closed for the third consecutive day.
The Nusra Front sent messages recorded by the captive soldiers to their families Friday, with the hostages calling on the government to work to free them.
“I call on the Lebanese Army and the Lebanese state to work with conscience and empathize with our parents and mothers, and consider us their sons,” kidnapped Lance Cpl. Sleiman Dirani said in the recording sent to his family. “I call on them to see how our mothers and fathers are sleeping in the streets with no one feeling for them or showing any interest in the matter.”
Others called on their families to keep protesting until the government secures their release.
Meanwhile, Arsal’s residents withdrew from a protest in the town Friday after some Syrian refugees began shouting slogans supporting ISIS and Nusra in a demonstration intended to condemn the Lebanese Army’s crackdown in the area.
Some 200 Syrian refugees gathered for the protest, with a few holding Islamist flags.
“Come in Abu Malek, we are going to Beirut,” shouted some of the protesters, referring to the Qalamoun emir of the Nusra Front. Cries of “The people want the Islamic State” were also heard.
Local leaders called on Arsal’s residents to demonstrate in solidarity with Syrian refugees after they were allegedly subjected to harsh measures by the Army this week, but after the pro-jihadist sentiments started to crop up they urged Lebanese to instead stay away.
The Army has been conducting a wide crackdown on Islamist militants in Arsal, detaining hundreds of men.
The detainees, some of whom were Lebanese, according to security sources, are suspected of having collaborated with jihadists during the five-day battle in Arsal with the Army last month.
The Army Friday said in a statement that it arrested 18 individuals of various Arab nationalities in the Al-Balha neighborhood of Dikwaneh for lacking legal papers. It also said the military arrested a Syrian suspected of being involved in subversive acts and for possessing forged currency. The military detained 10 Syrians as well for involvement in a fist fight in Faqra.
The Army announced Thursday that it had arrested 22 individuals for allegedly belonging to terrorist groups that fought the Army, but did not disclose the location of arrests.
Lebanese troops briefly clashed with militants scattered in the rugged terrain on the outermost edge of Arsal Thursday morning, while soldiers raided suspected militant hideouts in a Syrian refugee camp in the Wadi Hmeid area of the town.
Protesters, waving the flags of ISIS and Nusra , also marched in the northern city of Tripoli after Friday prayers, shouting extremist slogans and condemning the Army raids.
The security situation in Arsal was discussed by 21 Lebanese and Syrian scholars who issued recommendations after their meeting in the town prohibiting the killing of captives.
“We agreed during the meeting that the killing of captives or captured soldiers runs contrary to Islamic Shariah,” Baalbek’s Mufti Sheikh Ayman Rifai told The Daily Star. He added that the preachers would contact the militants to ask them not to kill any of the captured soldiers.
For his part, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea called on the government to use military force to free the hostages. Geagea said in a Twitter statement that there were two ways that would lead to the release of the captives, one being Hezbollah’s immediate withdrawal from Syria and the second a military operation to free them by force.
By Hussein Dakroub
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